On Monday, GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen announced he would not seek a 13th term in New Jersey's 11th Congressional District, a seat that Mitt Romney carried 52-47 and Donald Trump won by an even narrower 49-48 margin. Frelinghuysen's announcement makes him the 33rd Republican to retire this cycle, far outstripping the previous record of 29 in 2008, and his departure immediately makes this already-competitive race an even tougher hold for the GOP: According to the Daily Kos Elections House Vulnerability Index, this district went from being the 49th-most at-risk Republican seat all the way to the 17th.
Frelinghuysen hails from one of the oldest political families in New Jersey (to take just one example, his great-great-great-uncle Theodore Frelinghuysen was Henry Clay's running mate in the presidential election of 1844, when the Whig ticket lost to Democrat James K. Polk), and until this cycle, he'd never faced a tough re-election. But Trump's narrow win gave Democrats reasons for optimism this cycle, and local and national party leaders consolidated behind former federal prosecutor and Navy veteran Mikie Sherrill, who’s been running a vigorous campaign and has raised an impressive sum of money.
Frelinghuysen, meanwhile, seemed unprepared. Last year, he deservedly drew harsh headlines after he sent a fundraising letter to a member of a local bank's board of directors complaining about anti-Trump groups, with a thuggish "P.S. one of the ringleaders works for your bank!" added at the bottom in his own handwriting. The employee said she decided to resign after her boss questioned her, and Frelinghuysen came off looking like a frightening authoritarian.
Yet despite his pleas to banks, Frelinghuysen's fundraising had been surprisingly weak this cycle, which was all the more notable since he took over as chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee last year. (Incidentally, he’s also the eighth committee chair to call it quits, even though he wasn’t facing party-imposed term limits.) However, despite his anemic campaign, Frelinghuysen had insisted he wasn’t going anywhere. Just three weeks ago, in the wake of several other GOP departures, The Hill's Scott Wong asked him if he would retire. Frelinghuysen replied, "Certainly not." So much for that.
Republicans have dominated this North Jersey seat, which includes Morris County, for generations (Frelinghuysen's father, Peter Frelinghuysen Jr., served in the House from 1953 to 1975), and they’re not going to give it up without a fight. However, the current political environment has all the makings of a tough year for the GOP in suburban districts like this, and holding the 11th will now be even more difficult. Republicans will now be starting from scratch, and they’ll have until the April 2 filing deadline to find a candidate.
On the Democratic side, Sherrill, who was sitting on a $822,000 war-chest at the end of last year, faces businesswoman Tamara Harris, who had $448,000 in the bank as of Sept. 30 but had supplemented her stash with some $300,000 in personal money. Sherrill also has the backing of all four Democratic Party chairs in the district, a very big deal in a state where party machines are still powerful. (Thanks to this support, Sherrill will appear in a separate column on the primary ballot along with other party endorsees.) It's therefore unlikely that other credible Democrats will decide to run in the June primary.
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